Author’s Note: This article “The December Holidays/Christmas in San Francisco” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
The December holidays/Christmas in San Francisco presents a magical and festive time. Enjoy it with an abundance of no-cost or low-cost celebration at three main venues—Union Square, Embarcadero/Market Street, and Pier 39.
Beyond the shopping opportunities and commercial attractions, these three free venues show what a visitor or local can savor. Especially with kids in tow, the magic of the season unfolds.
The Holidays in Union Square
Union Square inspires during the holidays/Christmas time in San Francisco. It is the physical and spiritual heart of The City. At the center stands a huge tree sparkling with thousands of lights. Skaters circle on a nearby rink.
Facing the Square, the Westin St. Francis hotel boasts, in its lobby, the Sugar Castle. This mammoth confection is free to all to observe. The Sugar Castle symbolizes all those colorful, nostalgic recollections of Christmases Past. The Sugar Castle sometimes becomes an Enchanted Castle, so the name may vary. Expect 500 pounds of sugar. Or await a surprise in gingerbread, depending on what the pastry chef decides. Each year the artistic creation is different.
Around the Square, the major stores decorate their windows with holiday themes. The depictions may be commercial, such as reindeer with purchasable diamonds. Or they may be more religious, nostalgic, or whimsical displays, such as Father Christmas or Dickens’ echoes. The multi-story wreathed windows at Macy’s illuminate the Square. Macy’s also may have one street-level window on Stockton with SPCA cats and dogs up-for-adoption on display. Another Macy window may have the Charles Shulz characters, with Lucy offering Charlie Brown some 5-cent psychiatric help to comprehend what Christmas is all about.
The Neiman Marcus store on the southeast corner of the Square has in its atrium one of the larger Christmas trees you are likely to see.
Serendipity of Union Square During the Holidays
An enterprising street vendor with a hibachi may be selling roasted chestnuts with their definitive Christmas aroma and distinctive flavor.
An ice-skating rink in the Square offers a more northerly holiday interlude without the wind chill factor. Commercial tour buses leave from the Square for a look at Holiday Lights in the City.
An innovation in recent years is the WinterWalkSF “pop-up” festive scene on Stockton adjacent to Macy’s. Here you can stroll on green artificial turf or sit on illuminated ice-cube benches and enjoy food-truck snacks. Meanwhile, holiday music plays and festive multimedia projections adorn the walls of the stores.
Possibly the loftiest perspective on the holidays in Union Square is from the seventh floor of Macy’s on the outdoor deck of the Cheesecake Factory Restaurant, with its indoor and outdoor dining. You look down at the Square, the ice skating rink, and the enormous outdoor tree. Holiday music and Cable Car chimes rise toward you. Children will enjoy this restaurant as they munch on pasta and pizza.
For adults, the 46th floor bar known as Cityscape at the Hilton, 333 O’Farrell, a short walk from Union Square, allows you to peer down at Union Square and survey the entire light-show pageant of San Francisco, with a cocktail in hand.
The Holidays at the Embarcadero
The Embarcadero, where Market Street meets the Embarcadero, is another festive holiday locale. Here you will find the densest cluster of craft sellers in The City, all on the street, showing their holiday wares.
The largest ice-skating rink in San Francisco resides here, with the Ferry Building in the background.
The Ferry Building lights up like Santa’s workshop with vendors in their shops selling just about all imaginable items, especially for everyone on your culinary gift list.
At night go out on the public pier east of the Ferry Building, Pier 14, and look back at the Embarcadero Buildings. You will see the boxy structures lit up like giant gifts. From this same pier, you can delight in the Bay Bridge west span, permanently lit up in a “light art” display that contributes to all-year-holiday joy.
The Holidays at Pier 39
Throughout the year, Pier 39 delights visitors with its free entertainment.
The performers include its off-budget performers, the sea lions, who are self-sustaining fish eaters residing on boat slips. This crowdsourced-from-the-sea entourage requires from Pier 39 only some benches and bleachers for enthusiastic fans. A Sea Lion Center adjacent to the elevated lookout above the water tells their story.
During the holiday season, Pier 39 goes all out for seasonal decorations, starting with a huge tree at the entrance. Entertainers present frequently, especially carolers.
The Holiday Season in San Francisco
The Holiday Season is a complicated personal time of introspection and multi-cultural rejoicing. This is true in San Francisco and elsewhere. It is not only Christmas, but also Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah, or simply “the holidays.” Some citizens prefer to avoid any overlay of religion. The end of another year can provoke profound sadness. There can be an awareness of life passing and some dreams unrealized, as well as joy.
All citizens can agree, however, that December 21, the day of the winter solstice, is the darkest day of the year. As a result, some welcome solar light relief with cheerful illumination lies ahead, on some level. The prospect is uplifting and hopeful.
In fact, Light Art Sculptures are a big holiday (and all year) theme now in San Francisco. See my report on Light Art Sculptures, starting with the Bay Bridge, on my website at